Garcia’s long journey to the majors takes another twist

If you knew the name of Christian Garcia a year ago, you either are borderline fanatical about the Nationals’ minor league system or you are somehow related to the right-handed pitcher.

At this time last year, Garcia had wrapped up his first season in the Nationals’ organization, appearing in 10 games at short-season Single-A Auburn and one game at Triple-A Syracuse.

Garcia pitched well in 2011, posting a 2.66 ERA. He still was pretty low on the organizational depth chart, but at least he’d found a way to stay healthy, this after twice undergoing Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow.

This offseason, a lot more people know Garcia’s name and the potential he still has at 27. A third-round pick of the Yankees in 2004, Garcia didn’t just reach the major leagues for the first time this season, he made a major contribution to the Nationals’ postseason run, pitching to a 2.13 ERA in 13 regular-season relief appearances.

That was good enough to earn Garcia a spot on the Nats’ postseason roster, a remarkable feat given all he’d been through in his eight years as a professional ballplayer.

A lot has changed in 12 months for Garcia, but he’s about to go through another major career change. After showing he has what it takes to be a dominant major league reliever, Garcia is being asked to transition back into a starter.

The reasons for this move are three-fold: the Nationals feel Garcia’s pitching arsenal is better suited to him working as a starter; they believe pitching on a set schedule will be better for his surgically repaired elbow; and the Nats lack starting depth at the top of their minor league system.

At the Winter Meetings last week, Nats manager Davey Johnson acknowledged that the team does need to bring in a couple more starters to provide support behind their starting five, and he singled out Zach Duke as a guy that could slide into the rotation and make a spot-start, if needed.

“But I really think that the main guy that I think can do it is Christian Garcia,” Johnson said.

It’s got to be a little frustrating for Garcia to be asked to transition back to a starter, this after he’d finally cracked the major leagues as a reliever and had shown he could be effective as a late-inning guy. But Garcia said late last season that he’ll embrace any role the Nationals give him, and for now, Johnson and general manager Mike Rizzo are high on the idea of stretching Garcia’s arm out and having him work as a starter.

“It’s no secret I like Christian Garcia,” Johnson said. “There’s some discussion in the organization that he’s better off left relieving, (but) with that arm and with the three pitches he’s got that are all above-average major league, I’d like to see him stretched out a little bit because I think it’s kind of a waste having him go one inning or two innings. So he would give us depth in the rotation.

“And it’s always easy to go from starting back to the ‘pen. It’s awful hard to go from a one-inning guy to starting, and I would like to build up his arm strength in the spring and have him available to be insurance in any of those areas. He has a good chance of making my club. He came in the picture. That was another great sign by the organization, and he impressed a lot of people.”

Garcia has come a long way in the last year. He’s gone from minor league castoff to a part of a major league postseason roster.

Now, he’s being counted on to move effectively back into a starting role, after spending the last two years as a reliever. The Nats have faith in Garcia, and given all the hurdles he’s overcome thus far, I see no reason to doubt him this time.

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